Guilty, by Fannie Hurst

The Vertical City

To the swift hiss of rain down soot-greasy window panes and through a medley of the smells of steam off wet overcoats and a pale stench of fish, a judge turned rather tired Friday-afternoon eyes upon the prisoner at the bar, a smallish man in a decent-enough salt-and-pepper suit and more salt than pepper in his hair and mustache.

"You have heard the charge against you," intoned the judge in the holy and righteous key of justice about to be administered. "Do you plead guilty or not guilty?"

"I—I plead guilty of not having told her facts that would have helped her to struggle against the—the thing—her inheritance."

"You must answer the Court directly. Do you—"

"You see, Your Honor—my little girl—so little—my promise. Yes, yes, I—I plead guilty of keeping her in ignorance of what she should have known, but you see, Your Honor, my little gi—"

"Order! Answer to the point. Do you," began the judge again, "plead guilty or not guilty?" his tongue chiming the repetition into the waiting silence like a clapper into a bell.

The prisoner at the bar thumbed his derby hat after the immemorial dry-fingered fashion of the hunted meek, his mouth like an open wound puckering to close.

"Guilty or not guilty, my man? Out with it."

Actually it was not more than a minute or two before the prisoner found reply, but it was long enough for his tortured eye to flash inward and backward with terrible focus….

* * * * *

On its long cross-town block, Mrs. Plush's boarding house repeated itself no less than thirty-odd times. Every front hall of them smelled like cold boiled potato, and the gilt chair in the parlor like banana. At dinner hour thirty-odd basement dining rooms reverberated, not uncheerfully, to the ironstone clatter of the canary-bird bathtub of succotash, the three stewed prunes, or the redolent boiled potato, and on Saturday mornings, almost to the thirty-odd of them, wasp-waisted, oiled-haired young negro girls in white-cotton stockings and cut-down high shoes enormously and rather horribly run down of heel, tilted pints of water over steep stone stoops and scratched at the trickle with old broom runts.

If Mrs. Plush's house broke rank at all, it did so by praiseworthy omission. In that row of the fly-by-night and the van-by-day, the moving or the express wagon seldom backed up before No. 28, except immediately preceding a wedding or following a funeral. And never, in twenty-two years of respectable tenancy, had the furtive lodger oozed, under darkness, through the Plush front door by night, or a huddle of sidewalk trunks and trappings staged the drab domestic tragedy of the dispossessed.

The Kellers (second-story back) had eaten their satisfied way through fourteen years of the breakfasts of apple sauce or cereal; choice of ham and eggs any style or country sausage and buckwheat cakes.

Jeanette Peopping, born in the back parlor, was married out of the front.

On the night that marked the seventeenth anniversary of the Dangs into the third-floor alcove room there was frozen pudding with hot fudge sauce for dessert, and a red-paper bell ringing silently from the dining-room chandelier.

For the eight years of their placid connubiality Mr. and Mrs. Henry Jett had occupied the second-story front.

Stability, that was the word. Why, Mrs. Plush had dealt with her corner butcher for so long that on crowded Saturday mornings it was her custom to step without challenge into the icy zone of the huge refrigerator, herself pinching and tearing back the cold-storage-bitten wings of fowls, weighing them with a fidelity to the ounce, except for a few extra giblets (Mr. Keller loved them), hers, anyhow, most of the time, for the asking.

Even the nearest drug store, wary of that row of the transient hat-on-the-peg, off-the-peg, would deliver to No. 28 a mustard plaster or a deck of cards and charge without question.

To the Jett Fish Company, "Steamers, Hotels, and Restaurants Supplied—If It Swims We Have It," Mrs. Plush paid her bill quarterly only, then Mr. Jett deducting the sum delicately from his board.

So it may be seen that Mrs. Plush's boarding house offered scanty palate to the dauber in local color.

On each of the three floors was a bathroom, spotlessly clean, with a neat hand-lettered sign over each tin tub:

DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO UNTO YOU
PLEASE WASH OUT THE TUB AFTER YOU

Upon the outstanding occasion of the fly in the soup and Mr. Keller's subsequent deathly illness, the regrettable immersion had been directly traceable, not to the kitchen, but to the dining-room ceiling. It was November, a season of heavy dipterous mortality. Besides, Mrs. Peopping had seen it fall.

Nor entered here the dirge of the soggy towel; Mrs. Plush placed fluffy stacks of them outside each door each morning. Nor groggy coffee; Mrs. Plush was famous for hers. Drip coffee, boiled up to an angry sea and half an eggshell dropped in like a fairy barque, to settle it.

The Jetts, with whom we have really to do, drank two cups apiece at breakfast. Mrs. Jett, to the slight aid and abetment of one of her two rolls, stopped right there; Mr. Jett plunging on into choice-of—

The second roll Mrs. Jett usually carried away with her from the table.
Along about ten o'clock she was apt to feel faint rather than hungry.

"Gone," she called it. "Feeling a little gone."

Not that there was a suggestion of frailty about Mrs. Jett. Anything but that. On the contrary, in all the eight years in the boarding house, she held the clean record of not a day in bed, and although her history previous to that time showed as many as fifteen hours a day on duty in the little fancy-goods store of her own proprietorship, those years showed her guilty of only two incapacitated days, and then because she ran an embroidery needle under her finger nail and suffered a slight infection.

Yet there was something about Emma Jett—eight years of married life had not dissipated it—that was not eupeptic; something of the sear and yellow leaf of perpetual spinsterhood. She was a wintry little body whose wide marriage band always hung loosely on her finger with an air of not belonging; wore an invariable knitted shawl iced with beads across her round shoulders, and frizzed her graying bangs, which, although fruit of her scalp, had a set-on look. Even the softness to her kind gray eyes was cozy rather than warm.

She could look out tabbily from above a lap of handiwork, but in her boudoir wrapper of gray flannelette scalloped in black she was scrawny, almost rangy, like a horse whose ribs show.

"I can no more imagine those two courting," Mrs. Keller, a proud twin herself and proud mother of twins, remarked one afternoon to a euchre group. "They must have sat company by correspondence. Why, they won't even kiss when he comes home if there's anybody in the room!"

"They kiss, all right," volunteered Mrs. Dang of the bay-window alcove room, "and she waves him good-by every morning clear down the block."

"You can't tell about anybody nowadays," vouchsafed some one, tremendously.

But in the end the consensus of opinion, unanimous to the vote, was:
Lovely woman, Mrs. Jett.

Nice couple; so unassuming. The goodness looks out of her face; and so reserved!

But it was this aura of reserve that kept Mrs. Jett, not without a bit of secret heartache about it, as remote from the little world about her as the yolk of an egg is remote from the white. Surrounded, yet no part of those surroundings. No osmosis took place.

Almost daily, in some one or another's room, over Honiton lace or the making of steel-bead chatelaine bags, then so much in vogue, those immediate, plushy-voiced gatherings of the members of the plain gold circle took place. Delicious hours of confidence, confab, and the exchanges of the connubially loquacious.

The supreme lèse majesté of the married woman who wears her state of wedlock like a crown of blessed thorns; bleeds ecstatically and swaps afternoon-long intimacies, made nasty by the plush in her voice, with her sisters of the matrimonial dynasty.

Mrs. Jett was also bidden, by her divine right, to those conclaves of the wives, and faithfully she attended, but on the rim, as it were. Bitterly silent she sat to the swap of:

"That's nothing. After Jeanette was born my hair began to fall out just as if I had had typhoid"; or, "Both of mine, I am proud to say, were bottle babies"; and once, as she listened, her heart might have been a persimmon, puckering: "The idea for a woman of forty-five to have her first! It's not fair to the child."

They could not, of course, articulate it, but the fact of the matter was not alone that Mrs. Jett was childless (so was Mrs. Dang, who somehow belonged), it was that they sensed, with all the antennae of their busy little intuitions, the ascetic odor of spinsterhood which clung to Mrs. Jett. She was a little "too nice." Would flush at some of the innuendoes of the contes intimes, tales of no luster and dulled by soot, but in spite of an inner shrinkage would loop up her mouth to smile, because not to do so was to linger even more remotely outside the privileged rim of the wedding band.

Evenings, after these gatherings, Mrs. Jett was invariably even a bit gentler than her wont in her greetings to Mr. Jett.

Of course, they kissed upon his arrival home, comment to the contrary notwithstanding, in a taken-for-granted fashion, perhaps, but there was something sweet about their utter unexcitement; and had the afternoon session twisted her heart more than usual, Mrs. Jett was apt to place a second kiss lightly upon the black and ever so slightly white mustache, or lay her cheek momentarily to his, as if to atone by thus yearning over him for the one aching and silent void between them.

But in the main Henry Jett was a contented and happy man.

His wife, whom he had met at a church social and wooed in the front of the embroidery and fancy-goods store, fitted him like the proverbial glove—a suede one. In the eight years since, his fish business had almost doubled, and his expenses, if anything, decreased, because more and more it became pleasanter to join in the evening game of no-stakes euchre down in the front parlor or to remain quietly upstairs, a gas lamp on the table between them, Mr. Jett in a dressing gown of hand-embroidered Persian design and a newspaper which he read from first to last; Mrs. Jett at her tranquil process of fine needlework.

Their room abounded in specimens of it. Centerpieces of rose design. Mounds of cushions stamped in bulldog's head and pipe and appropriately etched in colored floss. A poker hand, upheld by realistic five fingers embroidered to the life, and the cuff button denoted by a blue-glass jewel. Across their bed, making it a dais of incongruous splendor, was flung a great counterpane of embroidered linen, in design as narrative as a battle-surging tapestry and every thread in it woven out of these long, quiet evenings by the lamp side.

He was exceedingly proud of her cunning with a needle, so fine that its stab through the cloth was too slight to be seen, and would lose no occasion to show off the many evidences of her delicate workmanship that were everywhere about the room.

"It's like being able to create a book or a piece of music, Em, to say all that on a piece of cloth with nothing but a needle."

"It's a good thing I am able to create something, Henry," placing her thimbled hand on his shoulder and smiling down. She was slightly the taller.

It was remarkable how quick and how tender his intuitions could be. An innuendo from her, faint as the brush of a wing, and he would immediately cluck with his tongue and throw out quite a bravado of chest.

"You're all right, Em. You suit me."

"And you suit me, Henry," stroking his hand.

This he withdrew. It was apt to smell of fish and he thought that once or twice he had noticed her draw back from it, and, anyway, he was exceedingly delicate about the cling of the rottenly pungent fish odor of his workadays.

Not that he minded personally. He had long ago ceased to have any consciousness of the vapors that poured from the bins and the incoming catches into his little partitioned-off office. But occasionally he noticed that in street cars noses would begin to crinkle around him, and every once in a while, even in a crowded conveyance he would find himself the center of a little oasis of vacant seats which he had created around himself.

Immediately upon his arrival home, although his hands seldom touched the fish, he would wash them in a solution of warm water and carbolic acid, and most of the time he changed his suit before dinner, from a salt-and-pepper to a pepper-and-salt, the only sartorial variety in which he ever indulged.

His wife was invariably touched by this little nicety of his, and sometimes bravely forced his hand to her cheek to prove her lack of repugnance.

Boarding-house lore had it correctly. They were an exceedingly nice couple, the Jetts.

One day in autumn, with the sky the color and heaviness of a Lynnhaven oyster, Mrs. Jett sat quite unusually forward on her chair at one of the afternoon congresses of the wives, convened in Mrs. Peopping's back parlor, Jeanette Peopping, aged four, sweet and blond, whom the Jetts loved to borrow Sunday mornings, while she was still in her little nightdress, playing paper dolls in the background.

Her embroidery hoop, with a large shaded pink rose in the working, had, contrary to her custom, fallen from idle hands, and instead of following the dart of the infinitesimal needle, Mrs. Jett's eyes were burningly upon Mrs. Peopping, following, with almost lip-reading intensity, that worthy lady's somewhat voluptuous mouthings.

She was a large, light person with protuberant blue eyes that looked as if at some time they had been two-thirds choked from their sockets and a characteristic of opening every sentence with her mouth shaped to an explosive O, which she filled with as much breath as it would hold.

It had been a long tale of obstetrical fact and fancy, told plushily, of course, against the dangerous little ears of Jeanette, and at its conclusion Mrs. Peopping's steel-bead bag, half finished, lay in a huddle at her feet, her pink and flabby face turned reminiscently toward the fire.

"—and for three days six doctors gave me up. Why, I didn't see Jeanette until the fourteenth day, when most women are up and out. The crisis, you know. My night nurse, an awful sweet girl—I send her a Christmas present to this day—said if I had been six years younger it wouldn't have gone so hard with me. I always say if the men knew what we women go through—Maybe if some of them had to endure the real pain themselves they would have something to do besides walk up and down the hall and turn pale at the smell of ether coming through the keyhole. Ah me! I've been a great sufferer in my day."

"Thu, thu, thu," and, "I could tell tales," and, "I've been through my share"—from various points of vantage around the speaker.

It was then that Mrs. Jett sat forward on the edge of the straight chair, and put her question.

There was a pause after it had fallen into the silence, as if an intruder had poked her head in through the door, and it brought only the most negligible answer from Mrs. Peopping.

"Forty-three."

Almost immediately Mrs. Dang caught at the pause for a case in point that had been trembling on her lips all during Mrs. Peopping's recital.

"A doctor once told a second cousin of my sister-in-law's—" and so on ad infinitum, ad lib., and ad nauseaum.

That night Mrs. Jett did an unprecedented thing. She crept into the crevice of her husband's arm from behind as he stood in his waistcoat, washing his hands in the carbolic solution at the bowl and washstand. He turned, surprised, unconsciously placing himself between her and the reeky water.

"Henry," she said, rubbing up against the alpaca back to his vest like an ingratiating Maltese tabby, "Hen-ery."

"In a minute, Em," he said, rather puzzled and wishing she would wait.

Suddenly, swinging herself back from him by his waistcoat lapel, easily, because of his tenseness to keep her clear of the bowl of water, she directed her eyes straight into his.

"Hen-ery—Hen-ery," each pronouncement of his name surging higher in her throat.

"Why, Em?"

"Hen-ery, I haven't words sweet enough to tell you."

"Em, tell what?" And stopped. He could see suddenly that her eyes were full of new pins of light and his lightening intuition performed a miracle of understanding.

"Emmy!" he cried, jerking her so that her breath jumped, and at the sudden drench of tears down her face sat her down, supporting her roundish back with his wet hands, although he himself felt weak.

"I—can't say—what I feel, Henry—only—God is good and—I'm not afraid."

He held her to his shoulder and let her tears rain down into his watch pocket, so shaken that he found himself mouthing silent words.

"God is good, Henry, isn't He?"

"Yes, Emmy, yes. Oh, my Emmy!"

"It must have been our prayers, Henry."

"Well," sheepishly, "not exactly mine, Emmy; you're the saint of this family. But I—I've wished."

"Henry. I'm so happy—Mrs. Peopping had Jeanette at forty-three. Three years older than me. I'm not afraid."

It was then he looked down at her graying head there, prone against his chest, and a dart of fear smote him.

"Emmy," he cried, dragging her tear-happy face up to his, "if you're afraid—not for anything in the world! You're first, Em."

She looked at him with her eyes two lamps.

"Afraid? That's the beautiful part, Henry. I'm not. Only happy. Why afraid, Henry—if others dare it at—forty-three—You mean because it was her second?"

He faced her with a scorch of embarrassment in his face.

"You—We—Well, we're not spring chickens any more, Em. If you are sure it's not too—"

She hugged him, laughing her tears.

"I'm all right, Henry—we've been too happy not to—to—perpetuate—it."

This time he did not answer. His cheek was against the crochet of her yoke and she could hear his sobs with her heart.

* * * * *

Miraculously, like an amoeba reaching out to inclose unto itself, the circle opened with a gasp of astonishment that filled Mrs. Peopping's O to its final stretch and took unto its innermost Emma Jett.

Nor did she wear her initiation lightly. There was a new tint out in her long cheeks, and now her chair, a rocker, was but one removed from Mrs. Peopping's.

Oh, the long, sweet afternoons over garments that made needlework sublime. No longer the padded rose on the centerpiece or the futile doily, but absurd little dresses with sleeves that she measured to the length of her hand, and yokes cut out to the pattern of a playing card, and all fretted over with feather-stitching that was frailer than maidenhair fern and must have cost many an eye-ache, which, because of its source, was easy to bear.

And there happened to Mrs. Jett that queer juvenescence that sometimes comes to men and women in middle life. She who had enjoyed no particular youth (her father had died in a ferryboat crash two weeks before her birth, and her mother three years after) came suddenly to acquire comeliness which her youth had never boasted.

The round-shouldered, long-cheeked girl had matured gingerly to rather sparse womanhood that now at forty relented back to a fulsome thirty.

Perhaps it was the tint of light out in her face, perhaps the splendor of the vision; but at any rate, in those precious months to come, Mrs. Jett came to look herself as she should have looked ten years back.

They were timid and really very beautiful together, she and Henry Jett. He came to regard her as a vase of porcelain, and, in his ignorance, regarded the doctor's mandates harsh; would not permit her to walk, but ordered a hansom cab every day from three to four, Mrs. Jett alternating punctiliously with each of the boarding-house ladies for driving companion.

Every noon, for her delectation at luncheon, he sent a boy from the store with a carton of her special favorites—Blue Point oysters. She suddenly liked them small because, as she put it, they went down easier, and he thought that charming. Lynnhavens for mortals of tougher growth.

Long evenings they spent at names, exercising their pre-determination as to sex. "Ann" was her choice, and he was all for canceling his preference for "Elizabeth," until one morning she awakened to the white light of inspiration.

"I have it! Why not Ann Elizabeth?"

"Great!" And whistled so through his shaving that his mouth was rayed with a dark sunburst of beard where the razor had not found surface.

They talked of housekeeping, reluctantly, it is true, because Mrs. Plush herself was fitting up, of hard-to-spare evenings, a basinette of pink and white. They even talked of schools.

Then came the inevitable time when Mrs. Jett lost interest. Quite out of a clear sky even the Blue Points were taboo, and instead of joining this or that card or sewing circle, there were long afternoons of stitching away alone, sometimes the smile out on her face, sometimes not.

"Em, is it all right with you?" Henry asked her once or twice, anxiously.

"Of course it is! If I weren't this way—now—it wouldn't be natural.
You don't understand."

He didn't, so could only be vaguely and futilely sorry.

Then one day something quite horrible, in a small way, happened to Mrs. Jett. Sitting sewing, suddenly it seemed to her that through the very fluid of her eyeballs, as it were, floated a school of fish. Small ones—young smelts, perhaps—with oval lips, fillips to their tails, and sides that glisted.

She laid down her bit of linen lawn, fingers to her lids as if to squeeze out their tiredness. She was trembling from the unpleasantness, and for a frightened moment could not swallow. Then she rose, shook out her skirts, and to be rid of the moment carried her sewing up to Mrs. Dang's, where a euchre game was in session, and by a few adroit questions in between deals gained the reassurance that a nervous state in her "condition" was highly normal.

She felt easier, but there was the same horrid recurrence three times that week. Once during an evening of lotto down in the front parlor she pushed back from the table suddenly, hand flashing up to her throat.

"Em!" said Mr. Jett, who was calling the numbers.

"It's nothing," she faltered, and then, regaining herself more fully, "nothing," she repeated, the roundness out in her voice this time.

The women exchanged knowing glances.

"She's all right," said Mrs. Peopping, omnipotently. "Those things pass."

Going upstairs that evening, alone in the hallway, they flung an arm each across the other's shoulder, crowding playfully up the narrow flight.

"Emmy," he said, "poor Em, everything will be all right."

She restrained an impulse to cry. "Poor nothing," she said.

But neither the next evening, which was Friday, nor for Fridays thereafter, would she venture down for fish dinner, dining cozily up in her room off milk toast and a fluffy meringue dessert prepared especially by Mrs. Plush. It was floating-island night downstairs.

Henry puzzled a bit over the Fridays. It was his heaviest day at the business, and it was upsetting to come home tired and feel her place beside him at the basement dinner table vacant.

But the women's nods were more knowing than ever, the reassuring insinuations more and more delicate.

But one night, out of one of those stilly cisterns of darkness that between two and four are deepest with sleep, Henry was awakened on the crest of such a blow and yell that he swam up to consciousness in a ready-made armor of high-napped gooseflesh.

A regrettable thing had happened. Awakened, too, on the high tide of what must have been a disturbing dream, Mrs. Jett flung out her arm as if to ward off something. That arm encountered Henry, snoring lightly in his sleep at her side. But, unfortunately, to that frightened fling of her arm Henry did not translate himself to her as Henry.

That was a fish lying there beside her! A man-sized fish with its mouth jerked open to the shape of a gasp and the fillip still through its enormous body, as if its flanks were uncomfortably dry. A fish!

With a shriek that tore a jagged rent through the darkness Mrs. Jett began pounding at the slippery flanks, her hands sliding off its shininess.

"Out! Out! Henry, where are you? Help me! O God, don't let him get me. Take him away, Henry! Where are you? My hands—slippery! Where are you—"

Stunned, feeling for her in the darkness, he wanted to take her shuddering form into his arms and waken her out of this horror, but with each groping move of his her hurtling shrieks came faster, and finally, dragging the bedclothing with her, she was down on the floor at the bedside, blobbering. That is the only word for it—blobbering.

He found a light, and by this time there were already other lights flashing up in the startled household. When he saw her there in the ague of a huddle on the floor beside the bed, a cold sweat broke out over him so that he could almost feel each little explosion from the pores.

"Why, Emmy—Emmy—my Emmy—my Emmy—"

She saw him now and knew him, and tried in her poor and already burningly ashamed way to force her chattering jaws together.

"Hen-ery—dream—bad—fish—Hen-ery—"

He drew her up to the side of the bed, covering her shivering knees as she sat there, and throwing a blanket across her shoulders. Fortunately he was aware that the soothing note in his voice helped, and so he sat down beside her, stroking her hand, stroking, almost as if to hypnotize her into quiet.

"Henry," she said, closing her fingers into his wrists, "I must have dreamed—a horrible dream. Get back to bed, dear. I—I don't know what ails me, waking up like that. That—fish! O God! Henry, hold me, hold me."

He did, lulling her with a thousand repetitions of his limited store of endearments, and he could feel the jerk of sobs in her breathing subside and she seemed almost to doze, sitting there with her far hand across her body and up against his cheek.

Then came knocks at the door, and hurried explanations through the slit that he opened, and Mrs. Peopping's eye close to the crack.

"Everything is all right…. Just a little bad dream the missus had…. All right now…. To be expected, of course…. No, nothing anyone can do…. Good night. Sorry…. No, thank you. Everything is all right."

The remainder of the night the Jetts kept a small light burning, after a while Henry dropping off into exhausted and heavy sleep. For hours Mrs. Jett lay staring at the small bud of light, no larger than a human eye. It seemed to stare back at her, warning, Now don't you go dropping off to sleep and misbehave again.

And holding herself tense against a growing drowsiness, she didn't—for fear—

* * * * *

The morning broke clear, and for Mrs. Jett full of small reassurances. It was good to hear the clatter of milk deliveries, and the first bar of sunshine came in through the hand-embroidered window curtains like a smile, and she could smile back. Later she ventured down shamefacedly for the two cups of coffee, which she drank bravely, facing the inevitable potpourri of comment from this one and that one.

"That was a fine scare you gave us last night, Mrs. Jett."

"I woke up stiff with fright. Didn't I, Will? Gracious! That first yell was a curdler!"

"Just before Jeanette was born I used to have bad dreams, too, but nothing like that. My!"

"My mother had a friend whose sister-in-law walked in her sleep right out of a third-story window and was dashed to—"

"Shh-h-h!"

"It's natural, Mrs. Jett. Don't you worry."

She really tried not to, and after some subsequent and private reassurance from Mrs. Peopping and Mrs. Keller, went for her hansom ride with a pleasant anticipation of the Park in red leaf, Mrs. Plush, in a brocade cape with ball fringe, sitting erect beside her.

One day, in the presence of Mrs. Peopping, Mrs. Jett jumped to her feet with a violent shaking of her right hand, as if to dash off something that had crawled across its back.

"Ugh!" she cried. "It flopped right on my hand. A minnow! Ugh!"

"A what?" cried Mrs. Peopping, jumping to her feet and her flesh seeming to crawl up.

"A minnow. I mean a bug—a June bug. It was a bug, Mrs. Peopping."

There ensued a mock search for the thing, the two women, on all-fours, peering beneath the chairs. In that position they met levelly, eye to eye. Then without more ado rose, brushing their knees and reseating themselves.

"Maybe if you would read books you would feel better," said Mrs. Peopping, scooping up a needleful of steel beads. "I know a woman who made it her business to read all the poetry books she could lay hands on, and went to all the bandstand concerts in the Park the whole time, and now her daughter sings in the choir out in Saginaw, Michigan."

"I know some believe in that," said Mrs. Jett, trying to force a smile through her pallor. "I must try it."

But the infinitesimal stitching kept her so busy.

* * * * *

It was inevitable, though, that in time Henry should begin to shoulder more than a normal share of unease.

One evening she leaned across the little lamplit table between them as he sat reading in the Persian-design dressing gown and said, as rapidly as her lips could form the dreadful repetition, "The fish, the fish, the fish, the fish." And then, almost impudently for her, disclaimed having said it.

He urged her to visit her doctor and she would not, and so, secretly, he did, and came away better satisfied, and with directions for keeping her diverted, which punctiliously he tried to observe.

He began by committing sly acts of discretion on his own accord. Was careful not to handle the fish. Changed his suit now before coming home, behind a screen in his office, and, feeling foolish, went out and purchased a bottle of violet eau de Cologne, which he rubbed into his palms and for some inexplicable reason on his half-bald spot.

Of course that was futile, because the indescribably and faintly rotten smell of the sea came through, none the less, and to Henry he was himself heinous with scent.

One Sunday morning, as was his wont, Mr. Jett climbed into his dressing gown and padded downstairs for the loan of little Jeanette Peopping, with whom he returned, the delicious nub of her goldilocks head showing just above the blanket which enveloped her, eyes and all.

He deposited her in bed beside Mrs. Jett, the little pink feet peeping out from her nightdress and her baby teeth showing in a smile that Mr. Jett loved to pinch together with thumb and forefinger.

"Cover her up quick, Em, it's chilly this morning."

Quite without precedent, Jeanette puckered up to cry, holding herself rigidly to Mr. Jett's dressing gown.

"Why, Jeanette baby, don't you want to go to Aunty Em?"

"No! No! No!" Trying to ingratiate herself back into Mr. Jett's arms.

"Baby, you'll take cold. Come under covers with Aunty Em?"

"No! No! No! Take me back."

"Oh, Jeanette, that isn't nice! What ails the child? She's always so eager to come to me. Shame on Jeanette! Come, baby, to Aunty Em?"

"No! No! No! My mamma says you're crazy. Take me back—take me."

For a frozen moment Henry regarded his wife above the glittering fluff of little-girl curls. It seemed to him he could almost see her face become smaller, like a bit of ice under sun.

"Naughty little Jeanette," he said, shouldering her and carrying her down the stairs; "naughty little girl."

When he returned his wife was sitting locked in the attitude in which he had left her.

"Henry!" she whispered, reaching out and closing her hand over his so that the nails bit in. "Not that, Henry! Tell me not that!"

"Why, Em," he said, sitting down and trembling, "I'm surprised at you, listening to baby talk! Why, Em, I'm surprised at you!"

She leaned over, shaking him by the shoulder.

"I know. They're saying it about me. I'm not that, Henry. I swear I'm not that! Always protect me against their saying that, Henry. Not crazy—not that! It's natural for me to feel queer at times—now. Every woman in this house who says—that—about me has had her nervous feelings. It's not quite so easy for me, as if I were a bit younger. That's all. The doctor said that. But nothing to worry about. Mrs. Peopping had Jeanette—Oh, Henry promise me you'll always protect me against their saying that! I'm not that—I swear to you, Henry—not that!"

"I know you're not, Emmy. It's too horrible and too ridiculous to talk about. Pshaw—pshaw!"

"You do know I'm not, don't you? Tell me again you do know."

"I do. Do."

"And you'll always protect me against anyone saying it? They'll believe you, Henry, not me. Promise me to protect me against them, Henry. Promise to protect me against our little Ann Elizabeth ever thinking that of—of her mother."

"Why, Emmy!" he said. "Why, Emmy! I just promise a thousand times—" and could not go on, working his mouth rather foolishly as if he had not teeth and were rubbing empty gums together.

But through her hot gaze of tears she saw and understood and, satisfied, rubbed her cheek against his arm.

The rest is cataclysmic.

Returning home one evening in a nice glow from a January out-of-doors, his mustache glistening with little frozen drops and his hands (he never wore gloves) unbending of cold, Mrs. Jett rose at her husband's entrance from her low chair beside the lamp.

"Well, well!" he said, exhaling heartily, the scent of violet denying the pungency of fish and the pungency of fish denying the scent of violet. "How's the busy bee this evening?"

For answer Mrs. Jett met him with the crescendo yell of a gale sweeping around a chimney.

"Ya-a-ah! Keep out—you! Fish! Fish!" she cried, springing toward him; and in the struggle that ensued the tubing wrenched off the gas lamp and plunged them into darkness. "Fish! I'll fix you! Ya-a-ah!"

"Emmy! For God's sake, it's Henry! Em!"

"Ya-a-ah! I'll fix you! Fish! Fish!"

* * * * *

Two days later Ann Elizabeth was born, beautiful, but premature by two weeks.

Emma Jett died holding her tight against her newly rich breasts, for a few of the most precious and most fleeting moments of her life.

All her absurd fears washed away, her free hand could lie without spasm in Henry's, and it was as if she found in her last words a secret euphony that delighted her.

"Ann-Elizabeth. Sweet-beautiful. Ann-Elizabeth. Sweet-beautiful."

Later in his bewildered and almost ludicrous widowerhood tears would sometimes galumph down on his daughter's face as Henry rocked her of evenings and Sunday mornings.

"Sweet-beautiful," came so absurdly from under his swiftly graying mustache, but often, when sure he was quite alone, he would say it over and over again.

"Sweet-beautiful. Ann-Elizabeth. Sweet-beautiful. Ann-Elizabeth."

* * * * *

Of course the years puttied in and healed and softened, until for Henry almost a Turner haze hung between him and some of the stark facts of Emma Jett's death, turping out horror, which is always the first to fade from memory, and leaving a dear sepia outline of the woman who had been his.

At seventeen, Ann Elizabeth was the sun, the sky, the west wind, and the shimmer of spring—all gone into the making of her a rosebud off the stock of his being.

His way of putting it was, "You're my all, Annie, closer to me than I am to myself."

She hated the voweling of her name, and because she was so nimble with youth could dance away from these moods of his rather than plumb them.

"I won't be 'Annie.' Please, daddy, I'm your Ann Elizabeth."

"Ann Elizabeth, then. My Ann Elizabeth," an inner rhythm in him echoing:
Sweet-Beautiful. Sweet-Beautiful.

There was actually something of the lark about her. She awoke with a song, sometimes kneeling up in bed, with her pretty brown hair tousling down over her shoulders and chirruping softly to herself into the little bird's-eye-maple dressing-table mirror, before she flung her feet over the side of the bed.

And then, innate little housekeeper that she was, it was to the preparing of breakfast with a song, her early morning full of antics. Tiptoeing in to awaken her father to the tickle of a broom straw. Spreading his breakfast piping hot, and then concealing herself behind a screen, that he might marvel at the magic of it. And once she put salt in his coffee, a fresh cup concealed behind the toast rack, and knee to knee they rocked in merriment at his grimace.

She loved thus to tease him, probably because he was so stolid that each new adventure came to him with something of a shock. He was forever being taken unawares, as if he could never become entirely accustomed to the wonder of her, and that delighted her. Even the obviousness of his slippers stuffed out with carrots could catch him napping. To her dance of glee behind him, he kept poking and poking to get into them, only the peck of her kiss upon his neck finally initiating him into the absurdity.

There was a little apartment of five rooms, twenty minutes removed by Subway from the fish store; her bedroom, all pink and yellow maple; his; a kitchen, parlor, and dining room worked out happily in white-muslin curtains, spindle-legged parlor chairs, Henry's newfangled chifferobe and bed with a fine depth of mattress, and a kitchen with eight shining pots above the sink and a border of geese, cut out to the snip of Ann's own scissors, waddling across the wall.

It was two and a half years since Mrs. Plush had died, and the boarders, as if spilled from an ark on rough seas, had struck out for diverse shores. The marvel to them now was that they had delayed so long.

"A home of our own, Ann. Pretty sweet, isn't it?"

"Oh, daddy, it is!"

"You mustn't overdo, though, baby. Sometimes we're not so strong as we think we are. A little hired girl would be best." The fish business had more than held its own.

"But I love doing it alone, dad. It—it's the next best thing to a home of—my own."

He looked startled into her dreaming eyes.

"Your own? Why, Annie, isn't this—your own?"

She laid fingers against his eyes so that he could not see the pinkiness of her.

"You know what I mean, daddy—my—very—own."

At that timid phrasing of hers Henry felt that his heart was actually strangling, as if some one were holding it back on its systolic swing, like a caught pendulum.

"Why, Annie," he said, "I never thought—"

But inevitably and of course it had happened.

The young man's name was Willis—Fred E. Willis—already credit man in a large wholesale grocery firm and two feet well on the road to advancement. A square-faced, clean-faced fellow, with a clean love of life and of Ann Elizabeth in his heart.

Henry liked him.

Ann Elizabeth loved him.

And yet, what must have been a long-smoldering flame of fear shot up through the very core of Henry's being, excoriating.

"Why, Ann Elizabeth," he kept repeating, in his slow and always inarticulate manner, "I—You—Mine—I just never thought."

She wound the softest of arms about his neck.

"I know, daddy-darlums, and I'll never leave you. Never. Fred has promised we will always be together. We'll live right here with you, or you with us."

"Annie," he cried, "you mustn't ever—marry. I mean, leave daddy—that way—anyway. You hear me? You're daddy's own. Just his by himself. Nobody is good enough for my girl."

"But, daddy," clouding up for tears, "I thought you liked Fred so much!"

"I do, but it's you I'm talking about. Nobody can have you."

"But I love him, daddy. This is terrible. I love him."

"Oh, Ann, Ann! daddy hasn't done right, perhaps, but he meant well. There are reasons why he wants to keep his little girl with him always—alone—his."

"But, daddy dear, I promise you we'll never let you be lonely. Why, I couldn't stand leaving you any more than you could—"

"Not those reasons alone, Ann."

"Then what?"

"You're so young," he tried to procrastinate.

"I'll be eighteen. A woman."

All his faculties were cornered.

"You're—so—Oh, I don't know—I—"

"You haven't any reasons, dad, except dear silly ones. You can't keep me a little girl all the time, dear. I love Fred. It's all planned. Don't ruin my life, daddy—don't ruin my life."

She was lovely in her tears and surprisingly resolute in her mind, and he was more helpless than ever with her.

"Ann—you're not strong."

"Strong!" she cried, flinging back her curls and out her chest. "That is a fine excuse. I'm stronger than most. All youngsters have measles and scarlet fever and Fred says his sister Lucile out in Des Moines had St. Vitus' dance when she was eleven, just like I did. I'm stronger than you are, dad. I didn't get the flu and you did."

"You're nervous, Annie. That's why I want always to keep you at home—quiet—with me."

She sat back, her pretty eyes troubled-up lakes.

"You mean the dreams and the scared feeling, once in a while, that I can't swallow. That's nothing. I know now why I was so frightened in my sleep the other night. I told Fred, and he said it was the peach sundae on top of the crazy old movie we saw that evening. Why, Jeanette Peopping had to take a rest cure the year before she was married. Girls are always more nervous than fellows. Daddy—you—you frighten me when you look at me like that! I don't know what you mean! What-do-you-mean?"

He was helpless and at bay and took her in his arms and kissed her hair.

"I guess your old daddy is a jealous pig and can't bear to share his girl with anyone. Can't bear to—to give her up."

"You won't be giving up, daddums. I couldn't stand that, either. It will be three of us then. You'll see. Look up and smile at your Ann Elizabeth. Smile, now, smile."

And of course he did.

It was typical of her that she should be the busiest of brides-to-be, her complete little trousseau, every piece down to the dishcloths, monogrammed by her—A.E.W.

Skillful with her needle and thrifty in her purchases, the outfit when completed might have represented twice the outlay that Henry expended on it. Then there were "showers,"—linen, stocking, and even a tin one; gifts from her girl friends—cup, face, bath and guest towels; all the tremendous trifles and addenda that go to gladden the chattel-loving heart of a woman. A little secret society of her erstwhile school friends presented her with a luncheon set; the Keller twins with a silver gravy boat; and Jeanette Peopping Truman, who occupied an apartment in the same building, spent as many as three afternoons a week with her, helping to piece out a really lovely tulip-design quilt of pink and white sateen.

"Jeanette," said Ann Elizabeth, one afternoon as the two of them sat in a frothy litter of the pink and white scraps, "how did you feel that time when you had the nerv—the breakdown?"

Jeanette, pretty after a high-cheek-boned fashion and her still bright hair worn coronet fashion about her head, bit off a thread with sharp white teeth, only too eager to reminisce her ills.

"I was just about gone, that's what I was. Let anybody so much as look at me twice and, pop! I'd want to cry about it."

"And?"

"For six weeks I didn't even have enough interest to ask after Truman, who was courting me then. Oh, it was no fun, I can tell you, that nervous breakdown of mine!"

"What—else?"

"Isn't that enough?"

"Did it—was it—was it ever hard to swallow, Jeanette?"

"To swallow?"

"Yes. I mean—did you ever dream or—think—or feel so frightened you couldn't swallow?"

"I felt lots of ways, but that wasn't one of them. Swallow! Who ever heard of not swallowing?"

"But didn't you ever dream, Jeanette—terrible things—such terrible things—and get to thinking and couldn't stop yourself? Silly, ghostly—things."

Jeanette put down her sewing.

"Ann, are you quizzing me about—your mother?"

"My mother? Why my mother? Jeanette, what do you mean? Why do you ask me a thing like that? What has my mother got to do with it? Jeanette!"

Conscious that she had erred, Jeanette veered carefully back.

"Why, nothing, only I remember mamma telling me when I was just a kiddie how your mamma used to—to imagine all sorts of things just to pass the time away while she embroidered the loveliest pieces. You're like her, mamma used to say—a handy little body. Poor mamma, to think she had to be taken before Truman, junior, was born! Ah me!"

That evening, before Fred came for his two hours with her in the little parlor, Ann, rid of her checked apron and her crisp pink frock saved from the grease of frying sparks, flew in from a ring at the doorbell with a good-sized special-delivery box from a silversmith, untying it with eager, fumbling fingers, her father laying aside his newspaper to venture three guesses as to its contents.

"Another one of those syrup pitchers."

"Oh dear!"—plucking the twine—"I hope not!"

"Some more nut picks."

"Daddy, stop calamity howling. Here's the card. Des Moines, Iowa. 'From
Lucile Willis, with love to her new sister.' Isn't that the sweetest!
It's something with a pearl handle."

"I know. Another one of those pie-spade things."

"Wrong! Wrong! It's two pieces. Oh!"

It was a fish set of silver and mother-of-pearl. A large-bowled spoon and a sort of Neptune's fork, set up in a white-sateen bed.

"Say now, that is neat," said Henry, appraising each piece with a show of critical appreciation not really his. All this spread of the gewgaws of approaching nuptials seemed meaningless to him; bored him. Butter knives. Berry spoons. An embarrassment of nut picks and silver pitchers. A sliver of silver paper cutter with a hilt and a dog's-head handle. And now, for Fred's delectation this evening, the newly added fish set, so appropriately inscribed from his sister.

Tilting it against the lamp in the place of honor, Ann Elizabeth turned away suddenly, looking up at her father in a sudden dumb panic of which he knew nothing, her two hands at her fair, bare throat. It was so hard again to swallow. Impossible.

But finally, as was always the case, she did swallow, with a great surge of relief. A little later, seated on her father's knee and plucking at his tie in a futile fashion that he loved, she asked him:

"Daddy—about mother—"

They seldom talked of her, but always during these rare moments a beautiful mood shaped itself between them. It was as if the mere breath of his daughter's sweetly lipped use of "mother" swayed the bitter-sweet memory of the woman he carried so faithfully in the cradle of his heart.

"Yes, baby—about mother?"

"Daddy"—still fingering at the tie—"was mother—was everything all right with her up—to the very—end? I mean—no nerv—no pain? Just all of a sudden the end—quietly. Or have you told me that just to—spare me?"

She could feel him stiffen, but when his voice came it was even.

"Why, Ann, what a—question! Haven't I told you so often how mother just peacefully passed on, holding a little pink you."

Sweet-Beautiful—his heart was tolling through a sense of panic—Sweet-Beautiful.

"I know, daddy, but before—wasn't there any nerv—any sickness?"

"No," he said, rather harshly for him. "No. No. What put such ideas into your head?"

You see, he was shielding Emma way back there, and a typhoon of her words was raging through his head:

"Oh, Henry, protect me against anyone ever saying—that. Promise me."

And now, with no sense of his terrible ruthlessness, he was protecting her with her own daughter.

"Then, daddy, just one more thing," and her underlip caught while she waited for answer. "There is no other reason except your own dear silly one of loneliness—why you keep wanting me to put off my marriage?"

"No, baby," he said, finally, his words with no more depth than if his body were a hollow gourd. "What else could there be?"

Immediately, and with all the resilience of youth, she was her happy self again, kissing him through his mustache and on his now frankly bald head, which gave off the incongruous odor of violet eau de Cologne.

"Old dude daddy!" she cried, and wanted to kiss his hands, which he held suddenly very still and far from her reach.

Then the bell rang again and Fred Willis arrived. All the evening, long after Henry lay on his deep-mattressed bed, staring, the little apartment trilled to her laughter and the basso of Fred's.

* * * * *

A few weeks later there occurred a strike of the delivery men and truck drivers of the city, and Henry, especially hard hit because of the perishable nature of his product, worked early and late, oftentimes loading the wagons himself and riding alongside of the precariously driving "scab."

Frequently he was as much as an hour or two late to dinner, and upon one or two occasions had tiptoed out of the house before the usual hour when Ann opened her eyes to the consciousness of his breakfast to be prepared.

They were trying days, the scheme of his universe broken into, and Henry thrived on routine.

The third week of the strike there were street riots, some of them directly in front of the fish store, and Henry came home after a day of the unaccustomed labor of loading and unloading hampers of fish, really quite shaken.

When he arrived Ann Elizabeth was cutting around the scalloped edge of a doily with embroidery scissors, the litter of cut glass and silver things out on the table and throwing up quite a brilliance under the electric lamp, and from the kitchen the slow sizzle of waiting chops.

"Whew!" he said, as he entered, both from the whiff he emanated as he shook out of his overcoat, and from a great sense of his weariness. Loading the hampers, you understand. "Whew!"

Ann Elizabeth started violently, first at the whiff which preceded him and at his approach into the room; then sat forward, her hand closing into the arm of the chair, body thrust forward and her eyes widening like two flowers opening.

Then she rose slowly and slyly, and edged behind the table, her two hands up about her throat.

"Don't you come in here," she said, lowly and evenly. "I know you, but I'm not afraid. I'm only afraid of you at night, but not by light. You let me swallow, you hear! Get out! Get out!"

Rooted, Henry stood.

"Why, Annie!" he said in the soothing voice from out of his long ago,
"Annie—it's daddy!"

"No, you don't," she cried, springing back as he took the step forward. "My daddy'll kill you if he finds you here. He'll slit you up from your tail right up to your gill. He knows how. I'm going to tell him and Fred on you. You won't let me swallow. You're slippery. I can't stand it. Don't you come near me! Don't!"

"Annie!" he cried. "Good God! Annie, it's daddy who loves you!" Poor Henry, her voice was still under a whisper and in his agony he committed the error of rushing at her. "Annie, it's daddy! See, your own dear daddy!"

But she was too quick. Her head thrown back so that the neck muscles strained out like an outraged deer's cornered in the hunt and her eyes rolled up, Ann felt for and grasped the paper knife off the trinket-littered table.

"Don't you touch me—slit you up from tail to your gills."

"Annie, it's daddy! Papa! For God's sake look at daddy—Ann! God!" And caught her wrist in the very act of its plumb-line rush for his heart.

He was sweating in his struggle with her, and most of all her strength appalled him, she was so little for her terrible unaccountable power.

"Don't touch me! You can't! You haven't any arms! Horrible gills!"

She was talking as she struggled, still under the hoarse and frantic whisper, but her breath coming in long soughs. "Slit-you-up-from-tail. Slit—you—up—from—tail—to—gills."

"Annie! Annie!" still obsessed by his anguished desire to reassure her with the normality of his touch. "See, Annie, it's daddy. Ann Elizabeth's daddy." With a flash her arm and the glint of the paper cutter eluded him again and again, but finally he caught her by the waist, struggling, in his dreadful mistake, to calm her down into the chair again.

"Now I've got you, darling. Now—sit—down—"

"No, you haven't," she said, a sort of wild joy coming out in her whisper, and cunningly twisting the upper half of her body back from his, the hand still held high. "You'll never get me—you fish!"

And plunged with her high hand in a straight line down into her throat.

It was only when the coroner withdrew the sliver of paper knife from its whiteness, that, coagulated, the dead and waiting blood began to ooze.

* * * * *

"Do you," intoned the judge for the third and slightly more impatient time, "plead guilty or not guilty to the charge of murder against you?"

This time the lips of the prisoner's wound of a mouth moved stiffly together:

"Guilty."